When the Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll was released, it looked similar to most years, with Boston College, Boston University and New Hampshire all sitting at the top.
But missing from that group of usual suspects were the Maine Black Bears, whom the coaches picked ninth out of ten teams, most likely the lowest preseason ranking for Maine.
There are plenty of reasons for the lower-than-usual ranking. A year ago the Black Bears struggled to score, finished ninth place and missed the playoffs for the first time in team history. But the biggest reason might have little to do with last season’s performance and everything to do with the early departure of goaltender Ben Bishop.
The standout announced early in the summer that he’d forego his final season of eligibility and make the jump to the professional ranks. Replacing him is easily the biggest challenge facing head coach Tim Whitehead and his staff.
“We understand [that goaltending] is going to be a big challenge. You don’t replace a guy like Bishop overnight,” said Whitehead. But we’ve been in this situation before when Ben was a freshman and we lost Jimmy Howard, who signed three days before his senior year.”
That season, the Black Bears reached the Frozen Four. But that’s hardly the expectation for Maine heading into this season.
“We’re a different team this year,” said Whitehead. “As coaches we understand that challenge will be greater than it was in 2006, when we had such a strong and balanced team to overcome a rookie goalie.”
The struggles that could lie ahead don’t bother Whitehead, but rather serve as a challenge. In his words, he and his staff are not going to be pushing the panic button.
“It’s going to be a process for us and we have to be careful not to push the gas too hard,” said Whitehead. “We’ve got to remind ourselves it is a process that takes time and that guys have to gain game experience.
“We have a lot of big voids to fill on our team, goaltending being the most important and the forward position second priority. Those are not overnight fixes, unfortunately. From experience, we understand that it’s a process and we’re going to have to take it week by week.”
If anything, the Black Bears will need the support of their fan base, which is hardly accustomed to being anywhere but near the top of the standings. Whitehead hopes the Maine faithful can stay just that … faithful.
“There’s a small group of [fans] who no matter what you say they’re not going to be satisfied,” Whitehead said. “To the bulk of Maine fans, we’re asking them to be as patient as they can be. Unfortunately, this is not an overnight fix. With what we’ve lost with early pro signings and graduation, this is a rebuilding process that’s going to take time. We’re just asking for their patience.”